The untold story of Project Cassandra illustrates the immense difficulty in mapping and countering illicit networks in an age where global terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime have merged, but also the extent to which competing agendas among government agencies — and shifting priorities at the highest levels — can set back years of progress.
And while the pursuit may be shadowed in secrecy, from Latin American luxury hotels to car parks in Africa to the banks and battlefields of the Middle East, the impact is not: In this case, multi-ton loads of cocaine entering the United States, and hundreds of millions of dollars going to a U.
Obama had entered office in promising to improve relations with Iran as part of a broader rapprochement with the Muslim world. But for the nearly two years Fayad was in custody, top Obama administration officials declined to apply serious pressure on the Czech government to extradite him to the United States, even as Putin was lobbying aggressively against it.
Fayad, who had been indicted in U. He is now believed by U. Former Obama administration officials declined to comment on individual cases, but noted that the State Department condemned the Czech decision not to hand over Fayad. Several of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were guided by broader policy objectives, including de-escalating the conflict with Iran, curbing its nuclear weapons program and freeing at least four American prisoners held by Tehran, and that some law enforcement efforts were undoubtedly constrained by those concerns.
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But the former officials denied that they derailed any actions against Hezbollah or its Iranian allies for political reasons. Lewis, speaking for the Obama administration, provided a list of eight arrests and prosecutions as proof.
He made special note of a February operation in which European authorities arrested an undisclosed number of alleged members of a special Hezbollah business affairs unit that the DEA says oversees its drug trafficking and other criminal money-making enterprises. Project Cassandra officials, however, noted that the European arrests occurred after the negotiations with Iran were over, and said the task force initiated the multinational partnerships on its own, after years of seeing their cases shot down by the Justice and State departments and other U.
The Justice Department, they pointed out, never filed corresponding U. A former senior national security official of the Obama administration, who played a role in the Iran nuclear negotiations, suggested that Project Cassandra members were merely speculating that their cases were being blocked for political reasons. Other factors, including a lack of evidence or concerns about interfering with intelligence operations could have been in play.
Your approach to anything as complicated as Hezbollah is going to have to involve the interagency [process], because the State Department has a piece of the pie, the intelligence community does, Treasury does, DOD does. As a result, some Hezbollah operatives were not pursued via arrests, indictments, or Treasury designations that would have blocked their access to U.
Bauer, in an interview, declined to elaborate on her testimony. Asher David Asher Veteran U. With much fanfare, Obama announced the final agreement on implementation of the Iran deal on Jan. Within months, task force officials said, Project Cassandra was all but dead. And Asher himself left the task force long before that, after the Defense Department said his contract would not be renewed.
As a result, the U. The derailment of Project Cassandra also has undermined U. Meanwhile, Hezbollah — in league with Iran — continues to undermine U. And Safieddine, the Ghost and other associates continue to play central roles in the trafficking of drugs and weapons, current and former U. From roughly to , Debek allegedly received military training from training in surveillance, explosives and firearms. They said they tried to keep the project on life support, in hopes that it would be revived by the next administration, but the loss of key personnel, budget cuts and dropped investigations are only a few of many challenges made worse by the passage of nearly a year since Trump took office.
Who knows if we can find all of the people willing to testify? There is certainly an argument to be made that if tomorrow all the agencies were ordered to come together and sit in a room and put all the evidence on the table against all these bad guys, that there could be a hell of a lot of indictments. But Maltz said the damage wrought by years of political interference will be hard to repair. Operation Perseus, targeting Venezuelan syndicates, was another. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the U. For decades, Hezbollah — in close cooperation with Iranian intelligence and Revolutionary Guard — had worked with supporters in Lebanese communities around the world to create a web of businesses that were long suspected of being fronts for black-market trading.
As they pursued their investigations, the DEA agents found that Hezbollah was redoubling all of these efforts, working urgently to raise cash, and lots of it, to rebuild its south Lebanon stronghold after a war with Israel had reduced it to rubble. Operating like an organized crime family, Hezbollah operatives would identify businesses that might be profitable and useful as covers for cocaine trafficking and buy financial stakes in them, Kelly and others said.
Mughniyeh had for decades been the public face of terrorism for Americans, orchestrating the infamous attack that killed U. Marines in in their barracks in Lebanon, and dozens more Americans in attacks on the U. Embassy in Beirut that year and an annex the year after. When President Ronald Reagan responded to the attacks by withdrawing peacekeeping troops from Lebanon, Hezbollah claimed a major victory and vaulted to the forefront of the Islamist resistance movement against the West.
Hezbollah became an expert in soft power, as well. It provided food, medical care and other social services for starving refugees in war-torn Lebanon, winning credibility on the ground. It then evolved further into a powerful political party, casting itself as the defender of poor, mostly Shiite Lebanese against Christian and Sunni Muslim elites.
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But even as Hezbollah was moving into the mainstream of Lebanese politics, Mughniyeh was overseeing a secret expansion of its terrorist wing, the Islamic Jihad Organization. Working with Iranian intelligence agents, Islamic Jihad continued to attack Western, Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, and to conduct surveillance on others — including in the United States — in preparation for future attacks. Hezbollah mostly left the United States alone, in what was clearly a strategic decision to avoid U. The DEA believed that it was the logical U.
But within the multipronged U. Established by President Richard Nixon in to bring together the various anti-drug programs under the Department of Justice, the DEA was among the youngest of the U. And while the DEA had quickly proven itself adept at working on the global stage — especially in partnerships with drug-infested countries desperate for U. And thanks to supportive Republicans in Congress, it had become the beneficiary of a new federal law that empowered its globe-trotting cadre of assault-weapon-toting Special Operations agents. The statute allowed DEA agents to operate virtually anywhere, without permission required from other U.
O n Feb. He was killed instantly. It was a major blow to Hezbollah, but soon after, wiretapped phone lines and other U. But it was Safieddine, a low-key, bespectacled man with a diplomatic bearing, who was their key point of connection from his base in Tehran, investigators believed. F reshly laundered money is.
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Used cars bought in U. Drugs are sent from Colombia. As the task force investigators intensified their focus on Safieddine, they were contacted out of the blue by Asher David Asher Veteran U. Before long, he traced the unusual alliance to a number allegedly used by Safieddine in Iran. It was a fruitful partnership.
Asher was accustomed to toiling in the financial shadows.
During his plus years of U. Usually, his work was strictly classified. For Project Cassandra, however, he got special dispensation from the Pentagon to build networks of unclassified information so it could be used in criminal prosecutions. Asher and his team quickly integrated cutting-edge financial intelligence tools into the various DEA investigations. With the U. A Hezbollah official, however, denied that the organization was involved in drug dealing. For us, this is haram. So in no way is it possible to be done. Of course, it is possible to have Lebanese people involved in drugs, but it is not possible for them to be members of Hezbollah.
This is absolutely not possible.
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So it is a little bit secret. Why bring weapons from Iran via Syria when we can procure them anywhere in the world? Safieddine may have been right. Agents found evidence that weapons were flowing to Hezbollah from many channels, including networks that trafficked in both drugs and weapons. And using the same trafficking networks that hummed with drugs, cash and commercial products, agents concluded, Safieddine was overseeing Hezbollah efforts to help Iran procure parts and technology for its clandestine nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The Bush administration had made disrupting the networks through which Iran obtained parts for its weapons of mass destruction programs a top priority, with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate personally overseeing an interagency effort to map out the procurement channels. Much of the early turbulence stemmed from an escalating turf battle between federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies over which ones had primacy in the global war on terrorism, especially over a so-called hybrid target like Hezbollah, which was both a criminal enterprise and a national security threat.
Further complicating the picture was the role of the State Department, which often wanted to quash both law-enforcement actions and covert operations due to the political backlash they created. Nowhere was the tension between law enforcement and diplomacy more acute than in dealings with Hezbollah, which was fast becoming a key part of the Lebanese government.
Distrust among U. In both cases, law enforcement agents suspected that Middle East-based spies in the CIA had torpedoed their investigations to protect their politically sensitive and complicated relationship with Hezbollah. The CIA declined to comment on the allegation that it intentionally blew the cover of a DEA agent or any other aspect of its relationship with Project Cassandra.
The Obama State Department and Justice Department also declined to comment in response to detailed requests about their dealings with Hezbollah. But the tensions between those agencies and the DEA were no secret. Some current and former diplomats and CIA officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, portrayed DEA Special Operations agents as undisciplined and overly aggressive cowboys with little regard for the larger geopolitical picture.
Kelly, now 51, was a streetwise agent from small-town New Jersey who cut his teeth investigating the Mafia and drug kingpins. He spent his infrequent downtime lifting weights, watching college football and chilling in cargo shorts. Asher, 49, speaks fluent Japanese, earned his Ph. Both were described by supporters and detractors alike as having a similarly formidable combination of investigative and analytical skills, and the self-confidence to match it.
At times, and especially on Project Cassandra, their intensity worked to the detriment of their careers. And they were often given no for an answer. Even though they were usually right. After its undercover agent was compromised, DEA and Colombian authorities scrambled to build cases against as many as traffickers, including a Colombian cartel leader and a suspected Safieddine associate named Chekry Harb, nicknamed El Taliban.
For months afterward, the Justice Department rebuffed requests by task force agents, and some of its own prosecutors, to add narcoterrorism charges to the drug and money-laundering counts against Harb, several sources involved in the case said.
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Agents argued that they had evidence that would easily support the more serious charges. A RICO case would give the task force the ability to tie many seemingly unconnected conspiracies together, and prosecute the alleged bosses overseeing them, like Safieddine, participants say. It would also allow authorities to seize potentially billions in assets, they say, and to use the threat of far longer prison terms to wring more cooperation out of Harb and others already charged or convicted.